Op-Ed: Espada Must Reconsider Vacancy Decontrol

by Gregory Lobo Jost

While much fuss has been made over whether State Senator Pedro Espada Jr. actually lives in the Bronx, there is no doubt that his district, which covers much of the northwest Bronx, is comprised primarily of rent-stabilized apartment buildings. The west Bronx’s share of the city’s stock of stabilized units is increasing every year.

This spike is primarily due to a rapid loss of rent-stabilized apartments in other parts of the city, mainly through a provision known as high rent vacancy decontrol.

Through this, an apartment can leave rent stabilization and an owner can charge what the market will bear when the legal registered rent reaches $2,000 and the apartment becomes vacant. This provision is sometimes referred to as “luxury decontrol” since, when it was written 12 years ago, $2,000 a month for rent was considered something only the very wealthy would pay. In occupied apartments where rents are nearing the $2,000 threshold, a landlord may hope for (or even actively work toward) a vacancy in order to deregulate an apartment.

(A similar provision, known as high rent/high income decontrol allows an apartment to become deregulated when the registered rent reaches $2,000 per month even without a vacancy if the income of the tenants exceeds $175,000 for two calendar years.)

Espada opposes repealing or changing the vacancy decontrol laws, claiming that rents in his mostly low- and moderate-income district are not in danger of reaching the $2,000 threshold.  His stance, however, demonstrates a narrow understanding of vacancy decontrol’s impact on the 33rd Senate District while failing to comprehend the larger impact speculation and gentrification are having on the neighborhoods he represents.

No doubt, other than in the Kingsbridge section of the 33rd District, the damage vacancy decontrol inflicts in the west Bronx is primarily indirect.  High-rent vacancy decontrol has helped to fuel speculation throughout the city during this past boom decade, especially in neighborhoods succumbing to gentrification pressures such as Harlem, East Harlem, Washington Heights, the Lower East Side and much of central Brooklyn. As a result, the number of neighborhoods where working class families can afford to live within city boundaries continues to shrink. Rents remain within reach of these families in few New York City neighborhoods outside of the west Bronx. As a result, there is an increasing concentration of the working poor in the Bronx, including in Espada’s district.

In addition to increasing economic segregation, vacancy decontrol is making it harder to find a decent apartment in the west Bronx as competition for lower rent units gets fiercer. Most of Espada’s district overlaps with community districts that rank among the city’s highest for percentage of households paying more than half of their income on rent, including 35 percent of Community Board 8 households, 38 percent of Board 7 households, and 43 percent of Board 6 households.  (Data is for sub-borough areas from the 2008 Housing and Vacancy Survey.)

Vacancy decontrol has also helped spur on the aggressive tactics used by many landlords, including certain private equity investors, to attempt to achieve higher rates of turnover and thus higher rents in their recently acquired properties. The practices, many of which could qualify as harassment, have been pursued most notably in upper Manhattan, but have also been well documented in the Bronx – including in Espada’s district – going back to Norwood News’ coverage of the Botanical Square properties in October 2005.

In having owners’ sights set on the magical $2,000 rent mark, vacancy decontrol has also encouraged speculation throughout the five boroughs. Speculative investment has, in turn, greatly inflated the city’s real estate bubble over the past decade. We are now beginning to see how devastating the effects of this bubble bursting are, as buildings go into foreclosure, and some are even abandoned in the process. Many more buildings are at risk for foreclosure in the coming years and are currently suffering from cuts in services as owners struggle to make huge mortgage payments. The tenants in these buildings – many of them the Latino constituency Espada claims to be representing, both in and out of his district – are the ones suffering the effects of the speculative market the most.

So, while on the surface it may appear that Espada is justified in rationalizing his indifference to amending vacancy decontrol, the 33rd Senate District is suffering as a result. Granted, all of these problems were around before he came into office, but he now has the chance to make a correction that is long overdue, and the vast majority of those he claims to represent – both residents within his district and Latinos throughout New York – will thank him for taking action.

Gregory Lobo Jost, a Norwood resident, is deputy director of University Neighborhood Housing Program.